Kings Of (Off) The Court

by October 20, 2008

As you should’ve seen by now, SLAM took a slight turn into the political with our latest issue, which has cropped up all over NYC and should be hitting newsstands nationally in the next day or two. We are hardly the only ones. “Music” magazines Rolling Stone, The Source, and Vibe have all put him on the cover, and a bunch of clothing companies have put out Barack-inspired apparel.

One of those companies is Undrcrwn, a SLAM favorite from the moment we saw their hoop-inspired clothing. We’ve mentioned Undrcrwn in print, and had their advertisements, and I’ve kicked it with their creative director, Dustin Canalin, a number of times. Never did anything formal with Dustin, though. Today that changes. Undrcrwn’s got a publicist now, and she reached out looking to promote the brand’s latest shirt, a sweet Obama shirt that is on sale now (when it’s in stock!). Given all that’s going on, the timing seemed right to me too, so I was glad to do the following q+a with one of the coolest and most creative cats in the basketball industry.

SLAM: Congrats on the new Obama line. I know these shirts are a play on the old Bo Knows Nike shirts, but what was the inspiration for doing Obama shirts in the first place?

DC: Thanks Ben. I’m usually not one for politics (outside of Biggie vs. Tupac beef), but when I watched the HBO special where Obama was actually playing basketball, I knew we had to do something. When we do anything at Undrcrwn we make sure it represents us and what we stand for. This was a perfect fit. It was around the time of the Olympics when brainstorming started. Around the same time, those Nike “tea bag” ads were everywhere I turned. So I guess the idea for Obama dunking on McCain was born somewhere between all of that. As for “Obama Knows,” that was kind of a freestyle. I was in a meeting in California with one of our retail partners, Shiekh’s, and they wanted a “home run.” They talked how they liked all the “Bo Knows” tees that were out at the time but they didn’t rep what was going on in the streets. I just blurted it out. They placed an order and here we are.

SLAM: It looks like you guys are actually sold out at the moment? Are more shirts being made?

DC: Our website is in a transition right now. We’re going to be launching a brand new site in November so look out for that. In the meantime, we’ve been printing these non stop. We’ve been shipping them straight to accounts, so the web has suffered because of the demand. We’re on it now since there is only a few more weeks before the election.

SLAM: Are the shirts made overseas?

DC: Nope. We produce 90% of our t-shirts here in Philadelphia, where Undrcrwn is based. We make shoes and cut and sew apparel in China, though. We’re in the home of the Phillies if you were wondering. (Sorry about the Braves, Lang).

SLAM: Shoot, the Phillies crushed me, too. I’m a Dodger fan. Anyway, have you heard from Obama or anyone in his campaign after either of the designs you’ve done?

DC: We’ve heard from dozens of people that say they’re part of the Obama Camp but we’re never really sure. We’ve sent a bunch of tees their way. We also talked to them about donating to the campaign (but they said they would not accept any money). This election and all its promotion is reminding me of the NBA All-Star game and parties. You go to the Official Allen Iverson Party and he knows nothing about it. Who knows? We do know Obama has seen at least one of them and liked it. The next shirt will be even more popular than any other tee we’ve ever made. I’d put money up to prove it. Just wait.

SLAM: Cool. Similarly, I think every member of our staff has had a lead that was going to lead to an official SLAM q+a with Obama, and we were told we were close several times, but it hasn’t happened yet. On one hand this has been frustrating because we’re a perfect fit: young readers who love basketball. On the other, he probably knows he’s getting the vote of most SLAM readers regardless, so we might not be worth his time. We still gave him that shout out of sorts on our new cover(s).

DC: I saw those. They look good. You could’ve done like 19 more. I still wish Gil made the cut. I heard his cover got dropped when he got hurt. I’m sure he’ll find out and score 50 on your favorite team. I’m actually going to tell him that you dropped it because you didn’t believe. Then you and I can go to the game and watch it all go down.

SLAM: Dude, when is he actually playing? I have nothing but love for Gil, I just want to see him on the court! So regardless of if there’s been an “official” Obama response to your shirts, I trust his supporters have loved them?

DC: Yes, hugely! Thanks to Spike Lee wearing the dunking one at the Democratic National Convention, the shirt and the brand got a lot of love. Spike just ordered a bunch of hoodies and long-sleeved shirts from us direct. He’ll be dipped all winter. We did get some random hate mail, too. (Which I saved. It’s funny as hell). Hate harder!

SLAM: What is it about Obama that so captures the imagination of people in this country right now?

DC: Everyone roots for the underdog. That’s what Undrcrwn is about. King of the underground. I think that people respect the fact that he thinks he can actually win. He’s won over so many people with his substance. I think of the campaign like I think of selling clothes. If you have a great ad campaign but the product sucks, nobody buys it. But if the product is good then all you need to do is make sure people know about it so they can go buy it. Plus, he’s just a smooth-ass dude.

SLAM: Not to go too far into politics, but do you think he can make a real difference? I mean, I think he’s great and he’s got my vote, but are the problems this country is facing too daunting for one man to fix?

DC: Honestly, I think the country needs some confidence. I don’t have a clue how Washington works outside of the Wizards. I do know about leadership and instilling hope into the country for a better tomorrow. Politics are politics. It’s people that we get behind. Obama is that dude.

SLAM: We’ve given Undrcrwn props in the magazine as the clothing company that most reps for basketball the way we do, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the origins of the company. Were you the founder, and how did you come to the idea?

DC: I felt that the basketball industry was too focused on the game and not the culture. People like the game but don’t necessary need to feel like they need to run up and down the court all the time. Shoes started to get more fitted to your foot and clothes started to look like racing outfits. As you get older you don’t get girls by showing up to the club like you just scored 30 points at the park. I had the idea since 1995 but it didn’t get a name until 10 years later. I was working for AND1 Basketball at the time and when they were bought I thought there was no better time to jump in and do it. I grabbed Peter Small, who was also at AND1 working in China making the footwear, and Jeremy Castro, my first cousin, who was in grad school, and suddenly Undrcrwn was a company. We released the first five tees in sneaker boutiques and the rest is history. The name Undrcrwn means “Underground Kings.” We are The Brand for Champions. It’s about that feeling you get when nobody believes in you and you use that motivation to win. That moment of winning is what Undrcrwn is about. See KG’s championship speech while popping bottles. It’s a celebration bitches!

SLAM: Nice. What is your personal basketball background? Player? Coach? Fan?

DC: You’d never heard of me? Seriously? Just kidding. My game now is really good in the first five minutes. That’s why if anyone plays with me they need to get me the ball asap or don’t pick me. My favorite players were all ball hogs that talk a lot of shit. Oh, and I don’t play defense. Need too much energy to score. But really, I am the ultimate basketball fan. I play, I study the history. I grew up on Scoop Jackson and SLAM, buy tons of shoes and t-shirts. I live it to this day. I’m blessed that I actually created the ultimate job for me. It’s like I’m still in high school. If you talk to anyone that knew me growing up they would say, “We knew he would do what he’s doing.”

SLAM: And hip-hop was a big influence as well?

DC: Hip-hop is a huge part of it. I always hear the term “Golden Era” thrown out there for hip-hop and basketball individually. I think that my education is really in growing with both cultures as they matured and were defined to popular culture. Growing up during the most influential time period for hip-hop and basketball allowed me to see how marketing campaigns affected me with product releases, exclusivity and all the other things that I deal with every day today. You can’t be taught this shit. I drew Nike swooshes on people’s backpacks for money to get shoes. I drew caricature pictures of people for Too $hort tapes. I always say that some things are learned and others are experienced. You just have a different attachment to it.

SLAM: How has business grown since you started in ’05?

DC: Business has grown a lot but we’ve learned so much along the way that we know we have a lot to still get through. When you’re a self-funded start-up company you have to do everything yourself. Things that you took for granted at big companies. Ignorance is bliss in some cases but we had so much experience before we started that we knew we weren’t doing everything we needed to be successful. Things are great now. Our team is amazing. For such a small company we have as much or more access than any other company out there. Even the big guys. I’ve spoken to Nike execs about basketball business, created products and athlete pitches for adidas basketball, Mitchell and Ness, Puma and countless other major brands looking for answers. We have them because we’re not afraid to say what we think. We have our own perspective. We are actually looking to create the Undrcrwn design agency to show that we are a “Design” company. We value design and we are the leaders, especially when it comes to basketball. We have a few projects in the works so things could get exciting.

SLAM: Who is on the staff now, making Undrcrwn go, and what are their responsibilities?

DC: As you know, I’m the Creative Director. My business card says “‘Dope’ Dealer.” Bryon Sheng is the general manager, the one who organizes the troops and marches us into the promised land. He’s been doing this for 20 years. His business card says “VP of ___________.” Set Free is our access to anybody, anywhere. Believe me, he knows 90% of the people that are reading this now and the people they look up to. He is in marketing but his business card says, “Bounty Hunter.” Pete Small makes things. He handles the development and sourcing for everything we make. His business cards says, “The Cobbler.” Jeremy Castro handles the day-to-day operations of the company. If you need to know where stuff is at and how it’s getting done, ask him. Jay Castro is our corporate grinder. He handles what ever needs to get done. Shipping, costumer service. More people know him than most of us. Gary Adelman handles all of our legal, finances and administrative stuff. He’s the one from our crew that will wear a suit somewhere that doesn’t even have a dress code.

SLAM: My business card feels so boring now…what plans do you guys have for ’09 and beyond?

DC: We just want to continue to grow at our own pace in the direction that we want. Starting your own company means you control your own destiny. No matter what you are told you don’t have to do things a certain way. There are good and bad things at every company and we’re just trying to limit the bad things. We’re moving into an office and putting a half court basketball court in it. We’re in the market for a Slurpee machine and stripper pole…I mean fireman’s pole. Oh yeah and we want to make money to pay for our lavish lifestyles…or at least mine.

SLAM: And will that future include even more Obama stuff?

DC: If this country gets their shit together and Obama actually wins, we’re going to sign him. It will be the first time that there will be the “Official Obama After Party” on election day.

SLAM: Do you think all the t-shirts, posters and magazine covers signal a change where politicians can be “cool,” or do you think Obama is just a once-in-a-lifetime candidate?

DC: Everything can be done again. There will never be another “first” but there will always be someone else that is inspired by the first that is more relevant to the time. I think that our country was just ready for something like this to happen. It’s all in the timing. It’s part captivation and part money. I’m sure there are tons of people that are either voting for McCain or not voting at all that are still selling Obama merchandise. Not us. We support him and his campaign. We are using proceeds of the money to donate to local charities in Philly and creating extra tees to give out to help spread the word.